Moving on from the “C-Word”: Looking ahead to 2014 in Public Services

Like it or not, cuts are the order of the day and whoever forms the next Government the overwhelming likelihood is that they are here to stay. Chancellor George Osborne only this morning announced that £25 billion more are on their way. This piece will refrain from even mentioning the “C-Word” because, looking to ahead to 2014 in public service policy, there is actually something more important to consider…

Yes, that’s right, this year in public services there will actually be something more important than money… and no, it isn’t citizenry pride (just type UK Border Agency into Google and you’ll see why). This factor will go a long way in determining the amount of funding certain public services receive, whether or not they should be reformed, how they are used and who they are used by; this factor is how public services are perceived.

It will be crucial to monitor and even try to influence debates on public services because in the run up to a general election public services sail like ships in a storm, if one catches the wrong headwind they could be capsized by the gusto of the next Government.

Governments are generally reluctant to reform a public service that is widely considered to be performing well, so services are by convention criticised before they are reformed – if a Minister yells “waste” then it won’t be long before they call for change. The Opposition meanwhile will look for any opportunity to cry “foul” during the process of reform, either arguing that the service did not need to be altered at all or demanding that reform goes even further – a bold Opposition may dare to propose a counter policy (but don’t count on it). The public all the while have to endure this noise, may be influenced by it, and of course will make their own noise to provoke it. The public’s perception of a service, holds the key to its future.

As a result, perception is a primary determinate of public service policy. Looking ahead to 2014, almost no public service has not undergone or is undergoing a period of change since the last election. The 2014 political discourse will be dominated by public service performance as policy wonks gear up to propose policies in 2015 Party manifestos to address them. Public service policy will be a defining political battleground, as a result, less than eighteen months from the next General Election, we can be certain one thing – a lot of noise…

It will be crucial for all those persons and groups affected to be able to monitor and try to influence those political debates because in the run up to a general election public services sail like ships in a storm, if one catches the wrong headwind they could be capsized by the gusto of the next Government. The “big three” public services make for interesting case studies in this regard; a quick look at the public and political perception towards health, education and welfare in England can provide an insight into their stormy futures.

For instance the word “waste” seems to follow any discussion of welfare policy like a bad smell, and when that word is spouted by all sides it is almost certain it will be followed by further reform. The present trend is quite clearly towards the formation of a leaner, more efficient, more proactive and less reactive system, but the debate over the best way to change this is ongoing. Public Service Information’s man with his nose in the trough is Pete, who will be following the smell so you don’t have to.

During its final term, the previous Labour Government gently fed academy schools into the education system like the introduction of exotic fruit into a new ecosystem. Consequentially, the current Coalition Government liked the taste of them so much that they are now being intensively farmed at the expense of any other locally grown produce. Education Secretary Michael Gove has staked his reputation on the ability of academies and free schools to cure England’s academic ills. The public at large, while initially dubious, seem to be becoming favourable to an increasingly familiar flavour. The Opposition at first did not know whether to welcome this expansion or reject it, but now their response is to praise academies conditionally, while accusing certain forms of free schools as being rotten and still extolling the virtues of the local authority run variety. This next year will go a long way in determining how the new ecosystem evolves, particularly how the growth of these exotic entrants are regulated. Olly from Public Service Information will watch over the orchard.

Having for years been accused of inefficiency, the NHS has undergone thorough renovation by this and the last Government, but the accusation of waste and inefficiency remains. Notably those accusations are currently coming from the Opposition, who seem to be preparing the conceptual ground for yet more reform. The Government meanwhile, are in defence mode when it comes to health policy, insisting their reforms need time to embed. At present, there are two determining gales, the current of this Government has blown towards a GP led structure but the Opposition’s alternative would seemingly to steer it in the direction of a local authority dominated system. Public Service Information will watch that weather vane for the prevailing wind.

Public Service Information has been set up Gary, Pete and Olly, specialists in political communications and public affairs from the Whitehouse Consultancy specifically to navigate you through the storm.

Olly Cardinali